– [Advertiser] Brand X brand Y brand Z, not one sticks, watch it again in slow motion.
– Welcome to the Sticky Branding Podcast. In this show, we are unpacking how companies grow sticky brands. My name is Jeremy Miller. I am the founder of Sticky Branding and host of the show. In today’s episode, I’m very excited to introduce you to Abid Virani. Abid is the co-founder and COO of Fable. Avid, welcome to the show.
– Thanks a lot, happy to be here.
– So let’s just dive right into the deep end. Tell me about Fable, who are you guys and what do you do?
– Yeah, absolutely. So Fable’s an online platform and basically what we’re trying to do is make it easy for digital teams, people are building apps, websites to learn about digital accessibility, to work with people with disabilities, to actually test and ultimately research opportunities to build better products. Our argument is basically that you know, through the process of inclusive design you end up building, not just products without barriers for people with disabilities, but ones that are more adaptable to the needs of everyone and ultimately just better and more robust as a product.
– Very cool. So before we talk, I wanna unpack this whole world of accessibility and why that is so relevant, ’cause I think there’s so much we can learn from that. But before we do that, I’d love to get a bit to your origin story. You started out in filmmaking and design, graduated from OCAD, a prestigious design school in Toronto, to co-founding a funded technology startup, how did that come about?
– Yeah, I think to be honest, for me, it starts way, way earlier. Like as a ten-year-old I opened Virani Home Studios with Napster and a CD burner. So entrepreneurship and business has been in my blood since day one. And I was always a believer in that, that’s something that you can build the muscle with and it didn’t need to be the focus of school so I left school and everything else I did including work, really focus on like the things I was passionate about. Filmmaking was this incredible micro lens into human experiences and an incredible way to build empathy and to see the world and to just be exposed to a lot of different exciting problems. And then school was always a struggle for me, but the master’s degree at OCAD University was called Inclusive Design and it was the only program I applied to and I was totally compelled by the argument. The best way to solve a problem is to solve the problem with the people who face it, totally removing that idea of like, you know, you can study and study and be the expert in this problem and solve it for thousands of people, millions of people. This was totally saying, you need to unlearn how you think you solve problems. The way you solve problems is by working with people who face the problem and empowering them to solve and address the problem. And that was really compelling and it definitely influenced how I thought about film, it influenced how I thought about pretty much every attribute of life, including, you know, how do you build a business and then found this problem that felt compelling from two sides, which was one, a huge amount of the digital world is not easy to use. For about a billion people who rely on different technologies than kind of the standard computer keyboard mouse. And so that’s massive, that’s this huge, huge problem in the world that needs to get addressed. And then the other side of that was just the surprising underemployment of people with disabilities and the challenges they face when it comes to a nine to five standard workforce kinda job opportunity. Or if in the little experiences that you get to build up to your professional career and how hard some of those are to access and Fable is really the bringing together of those problems. Hey, can we create flexible employment for people with disabilities? Can we make it easy for digital teams to work with people with disabilities so that they can build accessible digital products? The rest is just now logistically, what does it take to do that?
– So you didn’t come to this from the perspective of a personal experience or working with, like having disabilities of your own, it was more, you saw an opportunity and a problem that you could solve?
– Yeah, actually the starting point where it got really exciting was before we had actually come up with Fable, my co-founder Alwar and I were working on a project and it was just about remediating some textbooks that were needing to be made more accessible in a digital format. And the most efficient way to do that was to have a developer sitting right next to an individual who was blind so that they could very easily go back and forth to make a change and test, make a change in test. And that developer sent us a meme afterwards saying like a guy pulling out his hair saying, “you know, one week of working with you guys, and I can’t stop seeing accessibility issues anymore. And that was kinda like, well, how do we just make that possible for every developer out there and every designer out there to make it personal, make it real and then there’ll be inspired to solve the problem. And we need to get out of this idea of like, I need to comply with an accessibility law, but rather, hey, if I’m good at my job, then it doesn’t exclude people with disabilities.
– That’s amazing. And so when we look at this platform we’re on, we like, whenever I think of anything digital, our primary mode of content is through our eyes that obviously we stare at screens 10, 15 plus hours a day from television to iPhones to computers and everything else. But is it primarily dealing with people with visible visual disabilities or is it broader than that? How is the digital landscape and accessibility really hampering people with disabilities?
– Yeah, this is really cool because when you start talking about the technology side of it, it’s really helpful to kinda change how you think about disability. So our premise, a disability often it is this idea of it’s permanent and either you have one or you don’t. And breaking away from that and actually saying, hey, you know what? The mother holding a child who has to open a can is gonna benefit from a one-handed can opener device just as much as a person that has an amputated hand. So that’s something that we would call situational disability. You’re in a bar and it’s really loud and you wanna watch TV while you’re benefiting from the captions just as much as the person who’s hearing impaired. So disability can be organized into temporary, which is kinda like injuries, situational, which are some of those like in a bar, loud environment, dark environment, environment where you only have access to one arm or permanent. And the technologies and the adaptations to experiences to address kind of the moment of pain apply across all of those instances of disability. And so when you actually think about the technologies that people with disabilities use, it’s actually better to say, hey, have you ever used the brightness setting on your phone? That’s an assistive technology. It used to be buried in the accessibility settings. Do you use dark mode on your computer for any of the applications? Well, that’s existed for a long time, it was buried in the accessibility features. A lot of things that we think about as just normal features now, even Alexa, Siri, these were developed for people with disabilities at the onset, they’ve just become mainstream. The audio book is the most popular way of consuming books today, you know, initial purposes driven by accessibility. So the list goes on, the electric toothbrush was developed for people with disabilities, right? Like the list is huge, everyone uses the ramp on a sidewalk, skateboarders, strollers, you know. Accessibility is a way of when you approach design saying, hey, what are the outlier use cases? How do we build a product or an experience that is effective for those outlier use cases? But if you approach it that way, the ultimate impact impacts the mainstream and impacts absolutely everyone. And so when we tap into the world of people with disabilities, we think of it as folks who are uniquely qualified at using a range of technologies and devices that not everyone has the skill to use. And so we cast a pretty wide net. So we have folks who, you know, have experienced injuries later in life and maybe are in a motorized wheelchair and have limited movement of neck down to folks who are completely blind to folks with low vision. And, you know, that’s the spectrum that we’ve been focused on currently, but, you know, the spectrum just expands from there. When you look at the outliers of the human experience, like it’s more diverse than the populace that would maybe be deemed average in any way.
– I love the paradigm shift you’re giving us, Abid ’cause you look at some of the examples of the audio book or dark mode, they create the velocity in our daily lives. When you look at just Siri and Alexa and those products, they are accounting for the lion share of search on mobile now and it would solve the problem that actually opens up new markets and new ideas. So at this, it’s a beautiful paradigm shift that you’re creating. So take me a step further now, tell me more about Fable, what does your product or service do and how does it work?
– Yeah, so basically, you know, there’s this idea of the specialist, right. The individual who becomes a subject matter expert and becomes the center point for an organization, how do you address accessibility. And, you know, we think that that is short term. You know, we think accessibility is not that different from building responsive websites or building private and secure websites, which means that I ultimately, every designer, every developer has to build this muscle and build it into the way that they do their jobs. And so what we’re trying to do with Fable is say, okay, we wanna democratize that knowledge. We wanna spread out the responsibilities and ensure that everyone is kinda doing their part because the truth is that whether it’s research, design, development, QA, product management, like even copywriting, you know, there’s aspects of every one of those jobs that touch and impact digital accessibility. So the way the platform works is that there’s a multitude of ways to engage people with disabilities and to learn from them. We’ve got courses where, you know, people with disabilities are actually teaching you about accessibility. We’ve got the ability to conduct user interviews and to meet one-on-one with someone, a way to kinda do user acceptance testing, where you have, you know, multiple users go through a specific flow to verify that this works on your technology. So there’s a variety, there’s more, and our idea’s basically that, you know, we want different people on the digital team to connect with people with disabilities, not just the subject matter expert and not just the researcher, but, you know, every point in development could use some understanding, some opportunity to hear from a user and ultimately we’re hoping that the net impact of that is not just that the products that our customers build don’t have accessibility barriers in them, but that we start to build the features that benefit every single user that they serve.
– When you look at being a young startup today and you’ve gone through your first rounds of raising money, where are you finding the immediate market need or demand, like, who are your customers and why are they becoming so intrigued in accessibility? And is it being forced on them or is it their own volition?
– Yeah, you know, I think for the most part, it is their own volition. I think if you’re approaching accessibility from the, it’s being forced upon me kind of mindset, then I think that there’s easier ways that don’t involve a paradigm shift to try to address the compliance requirements. I think the folks who are working with us are excited by the prospect of building inclusive products means building better products. And how do we actually learn how to do that? How do we build that into our organizational processes so that it’s not about, oh, the compliance standard’s updated so we have to refigure out everything and do another audit, but rather, technology is evolving incredibly fast. People with disabilities are at the cutting edge of the technologies that we will use in the next 20 years the same way they were 20 years ago. So by building products that adapt and that work with this wide range of technologies is, you know, a way of, future-proofing an organization of standardizing code, of building robust products. And so what we’re finding is that it’s the teams that have the bandwidth for that type of decision making. So we’re talking about organizations that often have, you know, at least a hundred people on the digital team, folks who do have a dedicated research practice and often folks who are managing multiple products with continuous development. So, you know, genuine experiences that integrate into people’s lives. So, you know, Shopify as a customer. So you can have the store owner empowering the individual with the disability to manage and run an e-commerce product like a platform and to own and build a business, right. We work with banks, we work with government, Walmart, you know, like I think what we’re seeing is these are the organizations that have the resources to invest in innovation and invest in a higher quality of inclusion. And they’re looking to see some net impacts on not just, yeah, their accessibility practice but their product.
– We can also imagine that with the pandemic and the shift towards remote working and increased digital, like Shopify has exploded in the last two years, and we see this within the sticky branding ecosystem that even B2B companies became direct to consumer, direct to customer type models through e-commerce where they had never considered it before ’cause they will have salespeople doing that. But as soon as you start getting into these new frontiers, these accessibility issues start rising so much more ’cause you’re reaching that many more people and breaking out of those constraints that we were held into.
– I think what’s really interesting here, and this might be a bit of a tangent, but, you know, people with disabilities have been saying for a long time that remote work can work and more flexible employment options and digital first and remote first can be a way of being productive as an organization. And then, you know, they’ve been fighting that battle for a long time and they didn’t really win it. COVID forced it and now the whole world’s come around to, yes, remote works. We did have the ability to go digital way faster, to leverage tools way more effectively. And so that’s just an interesting piece of that whole thing. Like, I do think there’s a broader trend around diversity and inclusion. I do think there’s been a broad trend of modernization that organizations have been going through. But I think it’s almost a little annoying that it was COVID that pushed it, not businesses saying, hey, yeah, we actually can do better and we see the benefit, we see the positive outcome, not just on people, but on business that this could have. And I think the next frontier of this is the workplace tools. So, you know, Slack is a customer of ours but I think Slack is one of literally tens of thousands of workplace tools that folks are using to make their organizations run more efficiently. Well, you might have an accessible hiring practice, you might use an accessible platform to actually collect job applications but if on day one of the job, a person has provided 12 digital tools and nine of them don’t work for them and don’t even, you know, have the ability to connect with their technology, then we’re not setting people up for success either. And so I think there’s some pretty huge hurdles in front of us that continue to build on kinda what we’ve seen from COVID and COVID has allowed us to at least prove some arguments that I think have been made for decades and not been heard.
– COVID was an accelerant and it took digital transformations, people when thinking about remote working for decades and it just forced, this forced their hand and now the question will be that’s what’s next. But I think that underlying piece of what you’re talking about, Abid is really quite powerful just from a branding perspective, do you see, I guess it’s two part question. It’s do you see your role as being an evangelist for these types of ideas to raise the awareness of it? ‘Cause the other part of this is it seems to be baked into your culture and your business model in your community and having all of your, I don’t know if all your employees, but all of your testers are people with defined disabilities. How do you see this from both a community and a branding perspective? ‘Cause I can just see your passion percolating here.
– Yeah, you know, like I think there, I have a strong opinion of what I think is right and wrong and I’m not shy about it. I think the thing we’re actually trying to contribute to kind of the industry is not our opinion but it’s actually showcasing how even within an organization, we have divergent opinions. I think quite broadly, we’re running into this issue where every organization has to have a homogenous voice. That there can’t be disagreement or debate or different perspectives. And I think that that would be doing an injustice to the premise of the whole company. The disability experience just like any human experiences, are not homogenous. In fact, similar to kinda that argument of outliers and how you build products. You know, the lived experience of people with disabilities is increasingly unique as you delve deeper into them. So I think what we’re trying to put out there actually as a brand is this is why Cyber conversation, this is a place to respectfully disagree and to have competing ideas with some maybe underlying values which is that we think the digital world can be better than it is today. And we’d like to play a part in making it better. And there’s a lot of organizations out there with that mission, and that’s really exciting. Don’t all have to have the same approaches. We shouldn’t all have the same approaches ’cause that’s probably not the best way to actually solve the problem. And I think that’s where we’re sitting right now in regards to who are we as a brand is let’s promote and put forth not a singular idea but rather most importantly ideas from people with lived experience of disability and let’s see where that takes us. And I think what we’re seeing so far is that folks are looking to Fable to hear that voice and those voices, knowing that, you know, you’re going to learn something and that learning will hopefully help us all progress the way we think about it and approach the problem.
– So you’ve got an audience here of business owners, people who are truly passionate about their brands, we all have websites where we are marketing and selling products, developing products. Do you have a piece of advice as you’re talking, just to the broader audience of how do we start, how do we think about this? If we were to do one thing as a takeaway from today’s conversation, where would you point us?
– That’s great. I think it’s allowed brands to be young, like, allow things to evolve, don’t try to get it right out the gate. I think a great example is, you know, we built a product, it had a name and then I had another name and it’s gonna have a different name soon. I think allowing for iteration and responding to the market, especially in those first, let’s call it five to 10 years. If you’re really trying to build a giant, there’s no way you know what’s right in year one, hopefully you got your name right, and you love it five, 10 years later and it hasn’t had holes poked in it and someone else doesn’t have the same name in some other place and you aren’t in all that kind of mess. But I think allowing brands and the personality of a brand to be young. And then I think the other biggest, this isn’t for everyone, but for us, was don’t build a brand around the founders. Like the brands are bigger than individuals and let the organization have its own personality, its own voice and shape it as a founder, but also allow every other person on the team to shape it and understand that if you’re doing a great job at it, it should have a life of its own. And I think that’s been my biggest personal lesson, which is just, yeah, don’t build it around yourself and allow the organization to have a bigger brand than the individual. This reminds me of my initial kinda like experience with brand really was a family business as well that I rebranded. And it was rebranded on the premise of, you know, it had a name, that’s my mom’s name in the name of the business. And we said a few years ago that, hey, if this business is gonna succeed you, well, we need to change that. Right now, I think that same premise just applies in all businesses. If you’re trying to build a business, that’s gonna grow, scale even actually if it doesn’t grow and scale from a size perspective. But if you’re trying to build a business that wants to be a staple in a community for 50 years, well like, let it have its own personality, let it have its own brand.
– You speaking my language Abid, like for Sticky Branding we always say, build your brand from the inside out, and all great brands are built by people, smart, ambitious, creative people. And I think that’s the true element of leadership in terms of brand building is it’s not about the logos and the taglines and those types of things, it’s around that development of your team, around the purpose and a vision and then realizing it and it’s that work and that creativity. And you’ve got such a beautiful story on that from identifying an opportunity to creating it into something that has just such purpose and an impact. So it’s been a real treat to be able to have this conversation with you today. As we come to a close mindful of everybody’s time here, what’s the best way that we can find Fable and learn more about accessibility and what you’re doing?
– Awesome. I think first and foremost, like, you know, we have a website, makeitfable.com. We’re on social media and sharing stuff on LinkedIn and Twitter. I think on the deeper question of what can we do from that perspective of learning about accessibility. And I think it’s at an individual level really taking an extra moment to pay attention to the ones around us. One in five people in Canada live with a disability. So next time you’re amongst a group of friends realize that there’s often this thing that we don’t talk about that is totally part of our lives and that the chances are at some point or another, we all experience disability, whether it be temporary or permanent. The incidents of disability over the age of 65 is 40%. So let’s try and normalize this, pay more attention to it is the best first step, have open conversations about it. And, let’s get out of that mindset of thinking that this is a, you know, like a bad abnormality. There actually is very few things that are as normal as disability in our world and in our societies. And it’s something that we can all take some time to reflect on and be more aware of.
– Amazing, thank you. Abid, thank you for being part of today’s show. And for everybody tuning in, thank you for listening to the Sticky Branding Podcast. Be sure to subscribe to us, wherever you get your favorite podcasts that’s available on YouTube, be sure to like, and subscribe there too and visit us at stickybranding.com for more ideas, best practices and services on how you can grow your business into a sticky brand.